Most famous art has become, over the course of time, tied to the artist that created it. Da Vinci pained the “Mona Lisa,” van Gogh pained “Starry Night” and and on and on until you reach the end of the casual knowledge of art the average person possesses. No such relationship exists in commercial art, which, despite protestations of purists, certainly rises to the level of some kind of artistic expression, or is at least relevant enough to warrant inclusion in that conversation. Most of the iconography attached to brands or products comes from an originator anonymous to all but a few, which can make for compelling mystery when questions of ownership and origination arise.
Robert Fisher, a graphic designer out of California, has asserted himself into a battle between the band Nirvana (such as it still exists for the purposes of a musical estate) and the designer Marc Jacobs over the trademark and copyright for the band’s smiley face logo, claiming that it was he who created the iconic image. Nirvana’s business entity had been in a legal fight with Jacobs over what the company asserted was an infringement upon their design, which they allege Jacobs appropriated and altered slightly for his business’ use. Now Fisher’s claim that he is the rightful creator of the logo throws the entire case into turmoil.
As reported in Billboard, Fisher alleges that, in his role as a art director at Geffen Records, he struck up a creative relationship with Nirvana in 1991 that continued even beyond the death of lead singer Kurt Cobain in 1994, and that in that capacity he created the smiley face that would later be sued for t-shirts and other band merchandise. Fisher’s assertion, however, runs contrary to the existing record; the copyright held by the band for the design lists Cobain as the creator. Fisher claims to be unaware of the copyright filing, and makes the case that, as he was never an official employee of the band or its associated company, the design does not constitute work-for-hire that might otherwise award ownership to the band.
It makes for a twisting tale, and sets one to thinking about how many other creators of iconic images lost out on the rights to what would otherwise be millions of dollars. Maybe the signed away their rights, not knowing how much it would cost them, or perhaps their own legal battles never gained the traction necessary to get them even a percentage of what they would otherwise be owed. It’s a lesson for companies and creators alike: have agreements for work in place, and read before signing.